It was back in July 2009 that Terry Herbert got permission to metal detect over a field next to the village of Hammerwich, near Lichfield, in Staffordshire. The farmer told him not to bother as there was nothing there. Over the next few days, Herbert dug so many gold artefacts from the field that he felt completely overwhelmed and so, like any responsible metal detectorist, he called in the archaeologists. They eventually excavated over 3,500 items, which, in the words of the British Museum’s Leslie Webster, were “absolutely the metalwork equivalent of finding a new Lindisfarne Gospels or Book of Kells.” The artefacts have tentatively been dated to the 7th or 8th centuries, placing the origin of the items in the time of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia. It was probably the most significant Anglo-Saxon discovery since Sutton Hoo and, from when I first saw the items, still covered in mud, I knew that something very special had led to their burial.
As a prehistorian, I am used to the votive explanation for many hoards buried in the ground or thrown into rivers; they are gifts to the spirits or to the Gods. But it was not always like that. When I prepared my PhD thesis in 2001, I was considered radical for proposing this, flying in the face of more experienced heads who maintained that much of the metalwork had been buried for safekeeping, the owner fully intending to retrieve it later. For many academics, the idea of giving away such wealth was preposterous; they wouldn’t do it and so they couldn’t believe people in the past would do it either. Slowly, ideas changed and now much of the prehistoric metalwork found in hoards is assumed to be votive.
Anglo-Saxon archaeology is different. Dr Roger Bland, Head of the Portable Antiquities Scheme, summed it up by stating in relation to the Staffordshire Hoard: “It is assumed that the items were buried by their owners at a time of danger, with the intention of later coming back and recovering them.” Where had I heard that before? But this is not my area of expertise and so I dutifully respected those in the know and bit my tongue. However, several new discoveries have made me reconsider and maybe it is now time to suggest that the hoard may have been a votive offering after all.
Despite assurances that the field had yielded all its secrets, another 91 pieces have been discovered subsequent to the initial excavation. A treasure inquest on 4th January of this year ruled that 81 of these items were part of the original cache (they were close to the original findspot and were probably only scattered by the plough), 8 were modern farm debris, and 2 were from different deposits altogether, being some 40 and 50 metres away from the original findspot. It is these two items I want to focus on.
Little more than 2-3 centimetres in length, these two scraps of copper alloy are Anglo-Saxon harness fittings, decorated with intricate patterns of interweaving lines. They are unlikely to be chance losses; harness pieces do not just fall off a horse and two separate losses would be very unlikely. Moreover, the fact that these two items reflect the items in the original hoard suggests that people returned to the site, possibly on more than one occasion, and deposited similar material. Deposition here was a pattern, not a one off.
The original excavation found no sign of a burial mound, and while it cannot be entirely ruled out, there seems to be little signs of prehistoric burial mounds that may have attracted activity at this particular spot. But air photography and – perhaps tellingly – local folk traditions tell of a small hillock in the field, right where the hoard was discovered. During the initial excavation, a later field boundary curved at this point, as if it were avoiding or perhaps respecting something pre-existing, perhaps the hillock. Soil surveys suggest the hillock was formed from sand and clay, which would have affected vegetation growth at this spot, making it even more noticeable.
So why did people bury the hoard? A striking feature linking many of the items is that they are martial in nature. Indeed, most come from weapons, including 66 gold sword hilt collars. Even a biblical quotation on a strip of metal refers to warfare: “Rise up, Lord; may Your enemies be scattered and those who hate You be driven from Your face” and a gold cross may have been a standard to lead troops into battle. The fragmentary nature of the items within the hoard suggests they may have been war loot; the most valuable parts of weaponry plundered from a defeated foe on the battlefield. To me, this makes a votive motivation far more plausible.
Again, as a prehistorian, I am struck by the Hjortspring boat from Sweden, an Iron Age vessel full of battle gear and deliberately sunk as a war offering. Victorious warriors probably collected the loot and gave it to their war God in thanks for victory. The Anglo-Saxons might have done something similar, especially since they were not that far removed from their pagan past, when warriors would offer Odin the spoils of war if he granted them victory.
So why bury the items at Hammerwich? Possibly people interpreted the hillock in the field, albeit natural, as a barrow for a God or even for a mythical ancestor. Stories about the mound might have grown and people visited the place to show their respects, possibly seeking aid in everyday life, possibly even for a forthcoming skirmish. Like their ancestors before them, people offered the God or spirit choice pickings from any war loot if only they were granted victory. True to their word, after the battle, the victors returned and buried a bag of selected items as an offering of thanks. The site’s reputation grew as a result and others also visited, leaving smaller offering, such as the harness fittings that have just been discovered. The martial nature of these offerings matches those of the original cache, showing that the traditions associated with the mound were now widely known And, when people later came to demark the land with field boundaries, they studiously avoided the mound, making sure it remained a prominent feature in the landscape.
But this is only one possible story to explain the hoard among many others and new research, particularly on the surrounding landscape, will doubtless lead to more being told. But these latest finds, albeit only tiny scraps of copper alloy, already change what we know about the site. And, for this prehistorian, allows me to wonder with more impetus: could the Staffordshire Hoard be a votive offering? I can’t wait to find out more.